As outlined in my previous article Managing the (new) Admissions Cycle there have been great changes in the last year or so to the number of unconditional offers made by universities to applicants, with unintended consequences for the overall pattern of admissions across the academic year, as well as with larger, still unfolding implications about how universities go about recruitment. Given all this, it is clear that the points of personal contact between universities and potential applicants and/or offer holders are absolutely crucial in converting offers to acceptances, and that Open Day programmes have become all the more important for this reason.
Lay the ground beforehand
Nowadays there are countless ways to talk to potential applicants before they even set foot in your campus – from social media campaigns to communication with schools career officers. Make sure you use these to the full to promote both subject areas and universities as a whole. If your subject area doesn’t have a visible social media presence, for instance, why not approach your university marketing team with some up-to-date visual and textual content that they can then use to create a campaign around? Ask your current students for input – their ideas might surprise you!
Give applicants a stake
As well as online marketing, consider ways in which visitors can be encouraged to feel that they have a stake in the university from the moment they arrive. Technology may be part of the answer here: apps can guide visitors, encouraging them to explore the campus through a range of interactive features, and surveys can make visitors feel that their views are important to the university. Some universities have taken to giving visitors small tokens to act as aide memoires of their day – but interactive apps can function in much the same way, and with enhanced interactivity, can ensure longer-term engagement.
It’s the personal touch
But the key really lies in how staff interact with potential applicants in person. Staff should be well briefed so that they can answer a range of questions from both school-leavers and parents, and on topics that are both subject-specific, and general (including financial). Universities need to have well-developed briefing strategies in place so that all on-duty participants can answer general queries and know where to refer applicants and parents for expert advice in specific areas. Care should be taken with new or early-career staff to get them up to speed beforehand.
Don’t forget the parents
These days applicants are more likely to be accompanied by their loved ones than to attend on their own, and you need to consider the best ways to address parents on the day. Parents will have different concerns from their children, and in particular, may want to engage with you on the detail of finances, value for money, employability, and graduate outcomes. Consider how best to incorporate these concerns into your Open Day experience – should you have a separate session for parents/guardians only? Or should such issues be addressed in subject-specific presentations?
Bring in the students
The real key to success on the day is to make the best use of your student ambassadors. Applicants will want to talk to them directly about their own experience not just studying in your field, but also about their wider experience as a whole at university. Current students can demonstrate a commitment to and excitement about university life that school-leavers will be able to relate to.
With increasing emphasis these days on the student experience, current students are an invaluable resource for engaging potential applicants.
Get alumni on board
Alumni rarely feature in Open Days directly, but it might be useful for specific subject areas to ask particularly prominent alumni to give a short presentation in person on their career trajectory or to make a set of short videos that could then be shown on the day or distributed online.
Post-Open day engagement
Finally, don’t forget that engagement with applicants and parents doesn’t stop with the visit in person, but should carry on beyond. Be responsive and welcoming to any subsequent follow-up queries, and make sure your social media presence addresses those who attended in specific terms. Remember that conversion happens in a number of stages, from visitor to applicant, from applicant to attendee, and from attendee to committed student, and that at all points you must continue to engage in as welcoming and informed a way as possible.